Roleplayer #30, January 1993

Zo Do Wabda and the Water Woman

A Tale From GURPS Fantasy II: The Mad Lands

by Robin D. Laws

The Madlanders are a tribal people who have managed to survive for untold centuries in an extremely hostile environment. The dangers of an economy dependent on game hunting and deep-sea fishing provide a bleak backdrop. More terrifying are the monsters that lurk in the dark forested interior of the Mad Lands; they were once human, but have been turned into awful parodies of their former selves by the gods. The Mad Land's gods are its ultimate horrors: capricious, irrational animal deities whose mere presence spells doom and distress for any who approach them.

Madlander culture has developed in order to cope as well as possible with this never-ending supernatural pressure. Their society is deeply communal; individuals make all their decisions according to the greater good of their community. Though they will freely sacrifice themselves for their own kind, Madlanders are vehemently distrustful of outsiders, especially those who might wield shamanistic or sorcerous powers.

All of these traits – and anything else one might want to know about Madlander culture – are contained in their rich canon of stories, transmitted from generation to generation by village tale-tellers. Many of these feature Zo Do Wabda and his wife Vidigi, figures whose characteristics and histories vary widely from story to story. In the following example, Zo Do Wabda is clever and his wife is foolish; in many others the opposite is true. Dark humor and fatalism dominate Madlander tales – many end with cruelly ironic deaths for Zo Do Wabda and/or his wife.

A tale like this might be told at the approach of dusk. Village women will have finished their crafts and tending of vegetable patches. They'll have prepared a big communal meal, which will have been consumed with gusto. Men will be home from the adventures of the hunt, or back from the unpredictable sea. One of the village storytellers will take a seat on a boulder, indicating that she (storytellers can be men or women) has something prepared. The others will gather around her, sitting on the ground in anticipation. Some will be hoping for a time-honored tale they know by heart; others will want a new and surprising account invented by the narrator. On this particular night the first group is pleased, as the woman opens with the famous first words of a classic story:

Zo Do Wabda was always nervous on boats. Preferring the solid hazards of the hunting trail to the liquid ones of fishing season, he was uneasy. The cause of his disquiet was not the taunts of the seasoned fishers. He would get his own back on the next hunting expedition, when he would assign the most unpleasant tasks to the salty Gi Evav and his fellow jokers. But something still bothered him, a feeling that his stomach had suddenly become bottomless. Though it was warm for fishing season, Zo Do Wabda shivered on deck. He turned away from his laughing, bantering clan mates.

Out in the dark water, he saw something float to the surface. It caught the sun's rays and played with them. It was some kind of freakish hide clothing, thin and filmy, but with the sheen of honed metal. Wearing the clothing was a woman.

Zo Do Wabda shouted to the others, who pulled her into the boat. To their surprise, the woman was breathing. Though too tall and thin to be truly beautiful, with unpleasant blonde hair, the young thing still had a peculiar charm. She was clearly a foreigner; probably a Va Ekappi O, from the confusing land across the sea where vile sorcery is more common than air and all the people are crazy.

Zo Do Wabda immediately asked Gi Evav to hand him a harpoon; she might be a dangerous sorceress. Since she was a foreigner and not a human, he had no qualms about putting her to immediate death. After all, her survival in the water was unusual, and the unusual is always the source of justifiable fear.

But the others kept him from the harpoon. Recognizing of course that there was no moral obligation to let her live, they argued that neither was there sufficient reason to slay her. Not all Va Ekappi O were evil, just the vast majority of them. Until her menace to the village was reasonably proven, they should spare her.

Zo Do Wabda grumbled, but yielded to their entreaties. Given their honest objections, he would not take matters into his own hands. He would wait until returning to shore, when he would consult his clan elder. Pago Zibap was a wise woman, and would surely agree with him that the half-human should be killed before she turned on them.

To his surprise, Pago Zibap sided with the others; the woman was to be sheltered and cared for, assumed to be harmless until proven otherwise. Zo Do Wabda grumbled and fumed. To his added chagrin, the woman became fast friends with his wife Vidigi, who regaled him every evening with fresh details of life in the chaotic lands of the Va Ekappi O.

Her name was sickeningly unpronounceable; sounded out in decent Madlander the best that could be made of it was "Tuxo." Her stories were outrageous: she claimed to be from an enormous village inhabited only by women. She said none of the villagers ever had to work; food and goods simply lay on the ground, waiting for people to pick them up. All of the villagers followed the orders of their most beautiful woman; she could make decisions without the consent of the others.

Zo Do Wabda's mood grew darker the more of this nonsense he heard. Though none of it was even slightly believable, her words also failed to implicate her in sorcery. He was sure she was a magician – how would she have learned to speak our language without spells? But she was clever enough not to give herself away.

This continued for several years, with all of the villagers except for Zo Do Wabda gradually becoming fond of Tuxo. Finally the suggestion was made that she be adopted into the village and be treated as fully human. Vidigi proposed her for membership in their clan. A village meeting was called for that evening, during which the proposal would be fully discussed. Zo Do Wabda became despondent, sure that his beloved village was headed for disaster, knowing he would be overruled at the meeting.

Then something erupted from the sea, boiling out past the shore. It was a 15-foot-tall woman, shooting into the midst of the village like an arrow from a bow. Her eyes were cruel and unthinking, like those of a squid. Her hair was like a net of seaweed; it blew around her as if caught in a cyclone. Lobsters hung from her ear lobes; her body was covered with armor made of live, writhing sea urchins. The village men grabbed spears, swords and bows, but before they could act, strands of her seaweed reached out like tentacles and began to choke each and every one of them.

Tuxo came running from a longhouse, her eyes widening with frightened recognition. She shouted at the monstrous sea-hag; the sea-hag shouted back. Though their words were strange, the situation was not in doubt. It was clear that they knew each other. It was clear there was a mighty grudge. And it was clear that the giant was prepared to kill everyone in the village to get to her. Some of the older men had already fallen, strangled to death.

Tuxo stepped forward, in a posture of prostration. She was giving herself up to the hag. As she stepped forward, the hag threw her head back in triumphant laughter and drew an enormous blade of sharpened clamshells from the misty air. She reared back with it, ready to decapitate Tuxo. But as the blade neared her head, Tuxo opened her mouth. A barrage of bizarre fish with teeth the size of bear's claws flew from between her opened lips; they launched themselves at the giant and devoured her. Shattering screams of agony sprayed the air; then both monstrous hag and monstrous fishes dissolved into so much saltwater and slid back into the sea.

Tuxo kneeled against a rocky outcrop, as if drained entirely by the effort it cost her to rid the village of the murderous giant. Zo Do Wabda, shaken, slowly approached her from behind. He placed a soothing hand on her shoulder. Then he plunged his knife into the back of her neck and twisted it. She gasped and leaned back towards him with a look of shock and betrayal. Then she too melted into the surf.

The village cheered. Zo Do Wabda had been vindicated. Tuxo had been a stinking sorceress all along, and he had cleansed the village of her foul taint. The celebration held in his honor went long into the night. As all celebrated, Zo Do Wabda was even able to forgive Vidigi for foolishly trusting a foreigner.

More about Zo Do Wabda, and full details on all other aspects of Madlander culture, can be found in GURPS Fantasy II.

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